Friday, April 11, 2008

Boys' View of Home Violence

When a poor person dies of hunger, it has not happened because God did not take care of him or her. It has happened because neither you nor I wanted to give that person what he or she needed.
- Mother Teresa

Not long ago John, 8, and his brother, Mike, 6, and I sat on the floor in my office and played with wooden blocks. Their younger sister, Lucy, age 3, played with some toys nearby. Their mother was speaking with one of my co-workers about her violent ex-boyfriend, Richard. John, Mike, and I stacked up the blocks as high as we could and then one of them knocked them over. While John played, he kept a watch on his younger sister. If Lucy walked too far away, he got up and gently brought her back closer to him.

While we played, we talked. I asked them if they knew why their mom was at our office. They said it was for their mom to talk about Richard. I nodded. I asked them if that was a good thing and they both agreed it was. We kept playing and talking about school and kid stuff. I asked John about the abrasion on his face (I already knew from the police report he got that defending his mom). He said, “Richard did it when he pushed me.” I nodded again and asked him if it hurt. He said it didn't.

I told the brothers what I tell a lot of kids, that this is grown-up business and their job is to worry about kid business. Kid business is going to school, playing, reading, running around, stuff like that. I do realize how naive that is because some “kid business” is the stuff that would make many of us cringe. Some kids’ business is staying safe and protecting their mom and counting how many beers dad is drinking before trouble starts.

Still – I tell them that to say that they can’t control what us grown-ups do in case they feel like they are supposed to. I also talk with their mothers about the same thing. The normal parent-child relationship gets turned upside down in a lot of homes with domestic violence. The kids take on the role of protecting and comforting the parents. Isolation comes with family violence, so parents start to look at their children as their friends and confidants. I remember one formerly battered woman told me her 7 year old daughter was “her best friend.” What a burden for a kid to carry.

The darker side is when the kids emulate the role of the abuser and disrespect or even hurt their mothers. We found this to be true when we looked at some juvenile family violence cases a few years ago. We thought we’d find that juveniles charged with domestic violence were assaulting the male in the home, possibly protecting the female. What we found most often was that male juveniles assaulted female heads of households, a boy after his father’s own heart.

I talked with John and Mike about how and when to call 911, how to get out of the room if something violent happens, and – how it is NOT their fault. I told them Richard was in jail and we were going to talk with their mom about some grown-up ideas on how to be safe. John looked at me and plainly said, “He’ll send other people.” Then, John told me he didn’t need to call the police. He stood up and said, “I’m protecting my mom.” He looked very proud of himself and I told him he was very brave and how lucky his mom was to have such wonderful children who loved her so much.

After I talked with them, I talked with mom and and told her about my conversation with her boys. She was ashamed about not being able to protect them. We told her she was in fact protecting them. We talked about ways to stay safer and ways to heal.

At 8 years of age, precious John knows what battered women and children know without a doubt. We can’t protect them. He knows the grown-ups – the social workers, the police, the courts, and the lawyers can’t protect his mother. He knows that when Richard comes back, or if he sends one of his friends, it will only be him and Mike and Lucy. He’s going to be ready.
Mark Wynn is a grown-up boy who watched his mother get beat over and over, who tried to protect her, who did comfort her no doubt, and made plans with his brother to kill his sadistically abusive step-father. He grew up and made the choice to change the world on behalf of his mother. He became a police officer and decided to do what he could to stop domestic violence at a time when it was "a family matter." He started with himself, then he convinced other officers, and whole police departments and communities - he did it person to person. I had the chance to attend a training session with him this week and even to go out to dinner with him and a small group of people afterwards. It was such an honor to meet one of my heroes. As the mother of boys, I can imagine that his mother must have been so very proud of him. And, as a mother who works with other mothers to stay safe, I am so grateful to him. One person really can change the world - if he is ready.
If you want to learn more about Mark Wynn, go to his website:
If you want to learn more about the impact of violence on children, go to Dr. Bruce Perry's website (he's another hero):

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